Ireland on a Budget

Next Thursday, I’ll be flying across the pond for a sort-of spontaneous, long-awaited, 12-day trip to Ireland! I plan on staying with friends in Dublin for a few days, then taking the train down to Killarney in Co. Kerry to teach a few classes at the Killarney School of Music. While in Killarney, I suppose I’ll have to drag myself to The Gathering, a fantastic traditional Irish music festival held in the area each February. And in the Dublin area, I have plans to visit relatives in Wicklow, go to a few sessions, and explore literary Dublin via the James Joyce Museum and other sundry attractions. Hmm. Friends, family, music, teaching, and a festival…how’s a girl supposed to fit all this into ten measly days of traveling (subtracting 1 day on each end for travel time)?

This is the seventh time I’ve traveled to Ireland, and if I have my way, it certainly won’t be the last. It’s the second solo trip I’ve planned, paid for, and taken, the first being to Tullamore in Co. Offaly when I was nineteen. I’ve spent time in most areas of the country with varying degrees of respectable people, navigated Bus Eireann from cities into parts unknown, nearly lost my flute on a trolley at Dublin Airport, and played music in the most surprising places. From these experiences, I’ve cobbled a few basic tenets of sensible budget travel. Well, mostly sensible…

1. Plan Ahead. This seems like common sense; however, common sense seems to be less common these days. Research the public transportation infrastructure of your destination beforehand. For example, in Dublin, the DART can take you to the seaside in Howth or Bray. You can dramatically lower the cost of your flight by searching for flights often and early, and by flying at the right time of year. Flights to Ireland are at their lowest in January, February, and the end of March (after St. Patrick’s Day). They are also fairly low in November. I caught my flight from Boston, with one layover in London’s Heathrow airport, for around $630 round-trip. Compare that to over $1,000 round-trip Boston-Dublin in the summer months. Granted, Irish weather is generally lovely in the summer, with flowers in bloom and days lasting until 9pm. But this is Ireland on a budget, people. Sorry. If you’re exploring the west of Ireland, flying into Shannon Airport is a cheaper option. My flight was on average ~$100 cheaper if I arrived in Shannon, which is an hour ride or so away from Galway City. The Shannon flight schedule is erratic, so make sure you check their schedule!

2. Budget Travel. Once you step off the plane, you’ll need to get from point A to point B efficiently and affordably. I recommend researching the cheapest way from the airport to wherever you’re going, too. The last thing you want is to be jet-lagged, hungry, confused, and searching the airport terminal for the right bus into City Centre at 7am after a long-haul flight. If you have friends or family picking you up: you lucky devils, you. When contemplating inter-county travel, it’s best to consult your options. I need to travel from Dublin, in the east, to Killarney in the southwest, a journey that requires taking either the bus or the train. I was prepared to bus it from Dublin, which I knew would take at least four hours if I was lucky, and 6-7 if I was not, given the multiple transfers and the meandering, unpredictable nature of Irish roads. Lo and behold, my friend–with whom I’m staying, free of charge!–told me the train is faster and usually cheaper when bought in advance, with only one transfer. 10 euro one-way on the train, compared to 30 euro on the bus, with less headache? Yes please.

3. Budget Room & Board. The cheapest options in Ireland are hostels, hidden B&B’s, and of course, friends and family. Seriously. I’m not saying that you should barge in on your great-aunt once removed unexpectedly, or call up that dude you met on study-abroad to ask if you can crash on his couch. I’m saying, work your connections. In Ireland, everyone knows everyone. Even if you aren’t Irish yourself,  if you have a friend who has a connection there, consider asking your friend to connect you. I stayed just outside Ennis, Co. Clare with my dad’s cousin’s partner’s niece, whom I had never met before and to whom I’m not actually related. Travel is about new friends and new experiences, and Ireland tends to be more laid-back about visitors than the States. Don’t overstay your welcome, and you’ll be surprised the connections you’ll forge!

4. Budget Food. What, you want to travel and eat like a decent human being? Travel food budgeting is tricky because, let’s face it, you really want to use some of your food budget for alcohol. Pioneers and tee-totalers, I salute you. If you’re REALLY on a budget, and you REALLY can’t afford to splurge, decide how much you’re willing to spend each day before you get on that plane. Make your own meals when you can (hello, Tesco, Aldi, and Lidl supermarkets). Stay somewhere with a free breakfast. Only drink water at meals. Bring your favorite brand of power-bar/pick-me-up snack with you to ward off the hungry horrors when you’re out exploring. However: you should, if possible, leave wiggle room in your budget for those moments that make traveling in Ireland so memorable. Buying chips (french fries) smothered in salt and vinegar from a late-night chipper after a night out? Caving in for “just one more pint”, resulting in getting locked in the bar with the best musicians you’ve heard on this green earth? These are moments you won’t find in any budget spreadsheet.

5. Budget Time. Many visitors to Ireland seem to take the same approach when planning their time abroad: visit as many places as they can cram in to a week. Two days in Dublin, followed by two in Galway, followed by two at the Ring of Kerry will get you to most of the tourist attractions in half the country. Can you truly experience a place in just 48 hours? Never mind all the travel time and  logistics spent getting from here to there. And what if you want a day to relax and explore your surroundings at your own pace? I think having two destinations is perfect for a week’s vacation. Spend three days at one location and four at the other, giving yourself time to settle in a bit. If you get restless, try planning multiple destinations in the same general area. In Galway City, you can go out to Connemara, go visit the Cliffs of Moher, or take a trip to Westport in Co. Mayo.

6. Be Flexible. The mother of all travel tips! Flexibility saves your wallet and your sanity. If you find yourself stranded due to an overbooked hostel, dig around or ask the hostel staff their recommendation for another place. If you can’t find your favorite brand of yogurt/snack bar/soup, buck up and try the local brand. Miss your bus? Swallow that 20 euro of pride that you’ll never get back and catch the next one. Plans for the day fall through? Make up your own. Unless there’s a true emergency, any setbacks you encounter in Ireland may be handled with a good attitude and resourcefulness.

There you have it. Plan ahead; budget travel; budget room & board; budget food; budget time; and be flexible. If you want to take a trip, start making PB & J sandwiches and save those pennies. A little ingenuity goes a long way when traveling Ireland–or anywhere!–on a budget.

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